Like every other night of his sad and insignificant life, the last thing Monty does before going to bed is brush his teeth.
Routine stuff; 25 strokes sideways, 35 up and down, spit and rinse, check in the mirror for any sign of grey, practice the fake smile, sing the same off-key rendition of ‘I will survive’, change into sleeping suit and leave. However, this time there is a difference. To the untrained, it is nothing. But for the countless hidden spectators that have become familiar with his every movement, and that are zoomed on him right at that moment, there is an added weight to his whole persona.
And it is not the extra plate of Savor Pulao he had that night.
‘There’s something in his shirt pocket’, says Remi the roach excitedly.
‘Bet you my last bottom dollar it’s a roach’, whispers Gilly the cricket, he loves the roaches, and always calls them his cousins on all his rallies and processions. It remains Gilly’s lifelong ambition to induct the roaches into the KKK. But they remain wily political survivors, ready to change loyalties whenever a better option comes up. And except for those from Remi’s constituency, the rest of the roach population remains fickle and unpredictable.
‘Shhhhh!!!’ hisses Remi, ‘he’ll hear us!!!’
Gilly looks at him incredulously but remains quiet nevertheless. The two have been good friends over the duration of their lives and were the founding fathers of the Kaumi Keera Kuwwat (KKK) that won a landslide victory and brought democracy back to the ghusal khana after a long period of dictatorship rule enforced by Lazarraf-the lizard. But over time, their relationship has thawed, there are whispers in the power corridors (which basically mean the area behind the sink and under the toilet) that KKK might not be able to finish its term in office and that Bulgari-the party PM- might replace some of the officials, in an attempt to appease the opposition.
Just then as Monty takes off his t-shirt and gets into his night suit, both of the silent onlookers are spell bound by the beauty of colors in red and black as something flutters out of the t-shirt and alights on the towel stand.
‘Whoa!!!!! Have u ever seen anything like that?’ Remi breaks the silence.
For once Gilly is left speechless.
All around them, they can feel the excitement and curiosity building up, as the murmurs and whispers go up a notch, and Gilly knows that he isn’t the only one who has lost his tongue (or whatever constitutes as a tongue for a cricket). Soon enough Monty leaves, there is a moment of silence, which has been enforced by Bulgari, ever since the ‘Midnight madness’ escapade-when Monty returned to the ghussal khana after his nightly routine-a case of bad samosas being the culprit- and caught a couple of roaches doing the ‘moonwalk’. The GK population lost a lot of citizens that fateful night to ‘chappal attacks’, those who could not find a place to hide were smashed to pieces, to be eaten by the ‘choonti brigade’ (Ant Army). Ever since that night, the KKK has imposed a minutes curfew after Monty leaves, so that the same slaughter never happens again. As soon as the minute is over, from all nooks and crannies the residents of Monty’s bathroom come out and gather in the middle a.k.a ‘P-Chowk’ ( please don’t ask what the P stands for, suffice it say, it is at the bottom of the W.C. Over time many political leaders and revolutionaries have addressed the crowd from there, standing atop the W.C. There have been casualties as well when on rare occasions Monty forgot to drop the toilet seat. But enough of that), chattering and looking up at the towel stand. Bugs and insects of all shape and sizes stand abdomen to abdomen, craning their necks to get a better look at the oddity. There is an awkward silence, as nobody knows how and what to say. Gilly, ever the wily diplomat steps in, he clears his throat, or whatever passes for the throat of a cricket and chirps, ‘hey there fella! Why don’t you come down and sit with us?’
The red and black blob looks down uncertainly, finally resigned to its fate; it flutters down to the floor. Everyone steps back to give room to the newbie, but Gilly just walks up to it and clasps one leg around the petrified outsider and booms in his most perfect impersonation of an authoritative voice, ‘Welcome to ghussal khana!! I’m Gilly; I’m the minister of this wonderful place’
‘Are not!!!’ shouts the spider
‘All right that’s enough you two!!’ Remi the roach steps in, ‘pipe down Gilly, Monty isn’t even asleep as yet!! You want the midnight madness all over again??? Bulgari won’t let you off so easily this time!!’ That seems to work, because Gilly at once whimpers and steps back into the shadows, a couple of his cricket friends pat him on the back encouragingly.
‘Anyway, so where were we?’ Remi turns back to the center of attraction, he rubs his antennas together and pastes his best fake smile ‘so you must be a …ummm’ he rummages in his mind for any name that Mak the makhi might have dropped that he could use right now, just to impress the audience. Mak is the undisputed information minister of the ghussal khana, as he has access to the outside world, which consists mostly of Monty’s bedroom and the kitchen. The residents of the ghussal khana (GK from henceforth) feed makhi well to glean information from him that he picks off of the television (mostly national geographic).There are rumors that he has assets outside GK as well and has married countless times. Infact, if rumors are to be believed he has an illicit relationship with the machar clans as well which also explain his popularity in the GK elections each time. From his mother’s side he also has relations with the bumble bees so that during the great summer martial law of ’99, he remained largely protected.
‘Hey my names Shakira, I’m a ladybird’, says the stranger shyly in a high pitched voice, there is stunned silence, as nobody knows what that means. Just then everyone’s attention is diverted by a flurry of movement and buzzing as a slightly overweight housefly flanked by two long legged female mosquito’s crash lands right in the center of the crowd. The housefly is singing The Black Eyed Peas version of ‘Time of my life’ and doing a terrible job of it, the two mosquitoes provide the chorus and bob their heads in unison to the beat. There is an expectant silence, the housefly tries to stand up straight and wobbles slightly, and then it adjusts its paunch and shouts, ‘HELLOOOO GKIANS!!!!!’
A roar goes around the crowd, there are shouts and clapping all around, ‘welcome back Mak!!!’ and ‘Mak saada sher aye, baqi tittar te battair aye’ (Mak is our lion, all the rest are partridges-insignificant), ‘makhi for PM’ ring all around. A beaming Mak takes a lap of honor around the ring of adulating fans, high fives and chest bumps all around, bugs step over roaches, an over excited grass hopper jumps over the crowd and hugs Mak before plainclothes security drag him away.
The female mosquitoes giggle coquettishly.
Mak stops dead in his tracks upon spotting Shakira, flinging his arms off the two mosquitoes, he drops down on one knee and does his best impression of a wolf whistle, ‘my my we have a lady in the house!!’
Shakira blushes and flutters her wings, ‘hey’ she says.
‘Hmmphhh, you’re such an abdomen hole Mak!!!’ one of the mosquitoes flings off the piece of bread from her long leg and flies off sobbing with her friend.
Mak is nonplussed, ‘Don’t worry about her my dear, so you were telling me where you were from,’
‘umm im from F-9 park’
‘ahh beautiful place, I have a cousin there, his family hails from the wealthy makhis from the “use me” trash can near the south gate,’
‘Oh yeah I’ve heard of them!!!’ Shakira says excitedly
Mak beams proudly and looks around for approval from the onlookers, ‘excellent!! So that practically makes us…hmm what’s the word?’
‘Cousins!!!’ the female mosquito shouts from the toilet seat and then hides her face in her friends shoulder who pats her on the back, ‘there there baby, hush now, want some blood?’, she shakes her head while continuing to sob.
‘hehehe don’t listen to her sweetheart, she’s just joking’ Mak tries to play it down,’ of course we’re not cousins, although my great great- great grandfather had a brief spring fling with a hummingbird, but that’s beside the point, we’re acquaintances, so that makes it my duty to welcome you to our state of ghussal khana, come, let me give you a round of the state.’
Gilly steps forward and beckons to Mak, ‘what about the meeting Bulgari is holding tonight? You’re supposed to give him the situation report; I just saw a grass hopper in the crowd, a grass hopper Mak!!!’
Mak refuses to let anything spoil his good mood, ‘keep your thorax on Gill, he must’ve come in through the window, they’re nice people, we could use them in the elections.’
‘Oh come off it Mak, you know they don’t fit in here with us, they’re too conspicuous, there will be dire consequences, you do know how unpredictable the lizards are’, this seems to have a momentary sobering effect on Mak, who cast a nervous look up at the ceiling. A solitary lizard stands motionless near the tube light.
The lizards had their heydays during the martial law regime of the ‘Big Three’ comprising of Bruno the bee, Lazarraf the lizard and Spindle the spider, when hordes of bugs, roaches, and insects of all castes and creeds were killed in thousands. The KKK was almost obliterated and only those survived who were able to escape. What followed was a reign of terror in the history of GK which lasted for four days in which innocent bugs and insects were dragged out of their hiding places and killed indiscriminately with the lizards and spiders of the walls and ceilings forming a coalition party. Scribes referred to those times as the Dark Ages in the history of GK. With the forced exile of their leader, Bruno the bumblebee, the coalition lost its power and gradually, its hold over large tracts of the land. Even now though, Spindle, the crippled spider ruled the area under the sink and also the area where the wall met the ceiling. His castles of web still had dungeons where many a poor unfortunate insect lay trapped. It was rumored that Spindle was the only one besides Mak to have gone outside GK. He had married a foreigner by the name of Britney, a black widow spider that Monty kept in a glass jar. But he had to leave her after the honeymoon when the relationship turned sour. It was said that he lost one of his legs when Britney tried to eat him. The experience had left him bitter and resentful. Henceforth, he was dead set against inter species dialogue or any sort of coming together. He had consequently ended the partnership with Lazarraf, which marked the end of the era of the ‘Big three’.
The last member of the big three, Lazarraf ‘lundi’ lapaitoo was a polarizing character. And the missing tail that grew back after every close escape only added to his mysterious persona and appeal. Nobody really knew how and when he came to GK, but as far as analysts could tell, he had been part of the ‘Great Game’ during the rule of Bruno when the moths were trying to expand their hold near the lights. But with the exile of Bruno, the parting of the ways with Spindle and the coming into power of a democratic government under the KKK, the tacit support to Lazarraf died down as he was not very popular with the masses due to reports of him exploiting his authority and not discriminating between moths and the local insect population. There are still ‘missing insect cases’ in the GK court of justice in which he is a prime suspect. But there are some who consider him a national hero for defeating the moth brigade in the monsoon war of ’92. It is due to this grudging respect that he is still able to maintain a hold over the tube light, even though the monsoons bring fresh waves of moths and repeated attacks. The tube light is the highest battle ground in the GK and the main source of light. The government of Bulgari lets Lazarraf stays on with the unspoken agreement that he will not venture down or kill any of the locals. There are reports that KKK came into power by brokering a deal with Lazarraf in exchange for safe haven near the tube light. But lately, dissidents and the opposition have started questioning the government’s policy of ‘good lizard, bad lizard’.
There are calls on the KKK government to break the partnership and send the military ants, led by their battle scarred General Choonti after both Lazarraf and Spindle, the last remnants of the era of the ‘Cold War’ between the plain GKians and the highlanders or ‘clingers’ as derided by the land insects. The KKK is the first government which, under its crafty leader, unified the whole region, but it has always been a marriage of convenience, which of late, has started to come undone.
Mak is brought back from his reverie by Shakira, ‘Helloooo! I thought you were taking me on a tour!’
‘Sure hon, just give me a minute’, Mak turns to Gilly, ‘don’t worry about it mate! I’ve got it all covered, I’ve called in a party of fireflies from the garden; they’ll be coming in to celebrate our second week in power. The locals will love it, and they’ll forget all their problems, and we’ll be able to complete our term in office, trust me!’ he slaps Gilly on the back for assurance.
Gilly is not convinced, ‘I hope you’re right man, we’ve had two weeks of peace because Monty has been having his exams like you told us, which is why we have had no Krone attacks lately, but it cannot last forever!!’ Krone or ‘the death from the skies’ is the name that has become synonymous with fear and terror amongst the residents of the GK. Krone is the tall sweeper who makes daily appearances and unleashes powerful toxins as well as ground assault that kills anyone foolish enough to be caught out in the open.
Although vehemently denied by the KKK government, there are reports that there is in place, a secret approval for the attacks. The presidency has been stunned recently by the revelations of one of Gilly’s cousins who lives out in the lawn and who has seen the whole incident. Lombado ‘leaky weak’ ,so named due to the effects of a Krone attack when he was visiting Gilly, claims to have seen representatives from the KKK government meeting and sharing information with their counterparts in Krone’s mop bucket. If Leaky weak’s accusation is to be believed, the KKK not only approves of the attacks but also knows in advance when and where they will happen.
This is one of the main reasons why Bulgari had Mak sent out on a last-minute effort to secure the support of neighboring states. He tries one last time to convince Gilly, ‘Look man! I know what you’re saying and I agree, but look at the bright side of things, this ladybird has already diffused most of the tension, you’ve got to agree the crowd was pretty amicable considering the bombshell that your no good cousin leaky weak dropped,’ Gilly shifts around uncomfortably, Mak continues ‘but it’s ok man, once the fireflies perform, you’ll see how the people will forget all their worries and soon this incidence will be no more, you’ve been through this before, an entertained population is a happy population, so cheer up , ok?’
Gilly nods uncertainly, that seems to satisfy Mak , who puts his arms around Shakira and the two set off on a tour of the GK, leaving Gilly to worry about the arrangements for the concert after the meeting. He walks to the toilet seat, which is the main platform for all important meetings as well as the concert to be performed by the fireflies. Remi is already there, going over the seating plan and sequence of events for the ceremony which marks two weeks in power of the KKK. Giving Gilly a hurried wink, he goes back to the task at hand.
The two best friends will never meet again.
In a small hole behind the medicine cabinet, Bulgari the rat paces the entire length of his private suite (which isn’t much to begin with). He kicks away a piece of bread in disgust, I don’t need food, I need something to save my empire, he says to himself.
Through a storied career that started as a lab rat, Bulgari has seen it all. He was made to undergo countless experiments, which made him develop some sort of immunity to the usual off-the-shelf rodenticides. After escaping from the lab, Bulgari made a new identity for himself and once all his main rivals had been killed off by rat traps and poison, he was the last rat standing with a vast empire at his disposal.
Finding in the KKK a party without a strong leader, Be was able to unite them under a common banner through his fiery speeches and ability to woo important figures. The result was a landslide victory in the first local elections after the end of the dictatorship rule. However, politics is a dirty business and the latest round of rumors threatens to dismantle his empire. Not going to happen, says Bulgari to himself, I’ll do whatever is necessary to save my empire. Checking the time, he makes his way through the secret tunnel to the ghussal khana.
The bathroom light goes off at the appointed load-shedding hour, throwing the whole ghussal khana into pitch black darkness. Somewhere outside a lonely cricket chirps.
Shakira turns around in alarm, ‘Why are we leaving the GK?’ she asks Mak who refuses to answer as they fly out.
‘You’ve gotta trust me on this one baby, things are about to go down which you just don’t wanna know’ he says, ‘now let’s go there’s no time, I promise I’ll tell you all about it later’.
Shakira hesitates momentarily and looks back at the towel stand longingly and then clasping Mak’s outstretched hand, they both fly out through the window.
A sleek and dark figure quietly moves across the wall, Spindle does not even turn to look, he already knows its Lazarraf, and ‘What do you want?’ he asks gruffly.
‘Is that how you welcome a friend mate?’ Lazarraf feigns hurt.
‘I’m NOT your mate!!’ spindle spins around angrily, ‘at least not anymore’ he reproaches himself for letting Lazarraf get to him.
Lazarraf refuses to get bogged down by past enmities, ‘It’s time to revive the “big three” mate, it’s time to purify our homeland from the corrupt practices of this rag tag bunch of no-good despots, the situation is ripe, let’s go out just like we came in, with a bang!’, says Lazarraf, always the commando.
Spindle laughs hoarsely; it is an eerie sound that sends shivers down Lazarraf’s newly grown tail.
‘It’s all over for us, old friend, the times are changing, you and I, we are the last remnants of a time when these creeping, crawling insects knew their places, too much authority too fast has ruined them, there was peace and justice in our time, but now?’ Spindle shakes his head. Lazarraf now knows he’s got him; he pulls out his ace of spades.
‘But it can be just like old times mate, Bruno’s back!’, he waits, Spindle jerks his head up, Lazarraf grins, ‘yes old friend, he is back, and it’s all going to come back tonight’, he comes closer and whispers into Spindle’s ear who smiles for the first time in a long time.
Outside the window, the commandos are preparing for the assault. General Choonti moves up and down the columns, checking each soldier’s battle gear, ‘All right men, get in positions!!’ he barks.
Millions of red ants strap themselves on the legs and backs of the fireflies as the long convoy begins to move inside the ghussal khana. Bruno the bumblebee flies around outside the window expectantly, General Choonti pats him as he marches on with his troops, ‘Soon’ he says.
A large crowd of insects has gathered in front of the toilet seat. The first few rows are occupied by the KKK party workers and important figures in the ministry. There is a hush as Gilly and Remi step up and announce the arrival of Bulgari.
Ever the showman, Bulgari enters, accompanied by a cacophony of sounds and chirps led by a specially flown in music quartet of crickets and roaches.
Bulgari bows extravagantly and then raises his hands; the audience hushes instantly, ‘Insects! all flying crawling and creeping brothers of the Kaumi Keera Kommittee!Welcome!!’ there is a thunderous applause with a smattering of boos and jeers too.
Bulgari is oblivious to it all, as he continues, ‘I welcome you all to this august meeting where we celebrate our second week in power as a truly democratic force. But I know some of you have differences, and I agree mistakes have been made, I promise to address all those issues tonight, but first, let us empty our minds of all the problems, and lets enjoy, I give to you, the fireflies!!!!’
There is another round of claps, as the fireflies make their way in front of the crowd, there is some murmuring in the crowd, then somebody shouts, ‘it’s the commandos!!!’
For once in his life, Bulgari is caught unaware; he rushes forward and witnesses to his horror, a sea of red ants annihilating the crowd. Suddenly, directly overhead, he hears a cry of GERONIMO!! As a big leathery thing crashes on top of him, Bulgari has his wind knocked out by Lazarraf’s suicide attack, and then he hears Spindle shout hoarsely from somewhere close by, ‘Long live the revolution!!!’
The last thing Bulgari remembers seeing is the silhouette of a bee in the window, caught against the backdrop of the moonlight.
After Mak has told her of the whole plot to topple the government tonight, Shakira dabs a piece of tissue paper across her eyes and sobs uncontrollably as Mak tries to console her. The last of the screams and shouts have subsided from inside the GK, but Shakira refuses to go inside and is trying to make Mak change his mind too.
‘Please Mak I beg of you, don’t go in there, there’s nothing left in there, there’s no future for GK, it’s a failed state, please come with me to F-9 park, your cousins will accommodate you there’, she implores.
Mak grins, it’s more of a grimace, ‘I cannot leave GK, my roots are here, outside of GK I’m a nobody, here people know me, they know my family, I am somebody here. You don’t just get up and leave a place just because it’s failing, no!!! you try harder the next time, and the next, until one day, perhaps, when you’re no longer alive, your children’s children would say, “our old man was strong enough to stand up for what was right, and we love him”, think about it baby! We could be a part of something new, a new beginning, I’ve known Lazarraf and Spindle and even Bruno, they would take us in, we would be useful to their government.’
Shakira shakes her head ruefully ‘I’m afraid I can’t go through this with you Mak, these last few minutes spent with you have been the happiest of my life, and ill cherish them as long as I live. But I have a career and it’s in the wide open spaces of F-9, I feel claustrophobic in GK and I can’t stand all the politics and hate and violence and intolerance, you will be a great fly one day, I know, but us, it was never going to work baby.’ Without a second look, Shakira flies away.
Mak looks at her fast receding shape, women, he mutters under his breath.
The battle inside has been short and bloody. The victorious red ants led by their veteran General are now congratulating themselves on a major victory. Amongst the killed lies Bulgari the rat, Lazarraf the lizard, Gilly the cricket and Spindle the spider.
As Remi sifts through the dead and dying, he comes across the body of his old friend. Memories of all the times spent together flash across his mind. Two bright young, optimistic and care free individuals, they had entered into politics together, filled with innovative ideas and schemes of success and power. This is what it all boils down to old friend, thinks Remi, a solitary tear trickles down his stoic face.
‘What seems to be the problem soldier? Why has the column stopped?’ barks General Choonti at the clearly nervous red ant.
‘S-s-sorry sir! But our route seems to be blocked’, he nervously points to the closed window leading out of the ghusal khana. ‘How is that possible?’ shouts Choonti incredulously, ‘we just came in through here!’ he tries to push the little opening in the window, but it has been sealed tight by something. As General Choonti looks helplessly outside, a bumblebee flies in the moonlight.
Remi is jerked back to reality by the shouts and commotion near the window. Within seconds he assesses the situation and realizes that there has been a counter coup. He looks around at the milieu of insects and wonders who will live out the massacre that is about to follow once Monty sees this situation in the morning. Being a wily and shrewd politician, Remi knows that the situation calls for a hasty exit out of GK for the time being, to return once the situation has normalized. Casting a backward glance at the place which gave him so much fame and recognition, I will come back soon, he vows to himself as he makes his escape.
‘What are you doing? They’ll all be killed in there’, Mak is furious with Bruno for closing the exit route for the ants. The old veteran smiles sagely and says nothing for a while as the young hot headed fly buzzes angrily around him, reminding him of himself during his early days.
‘Simmer down young man,’ Bruno tries to placate Mak ‘tell me, more insects inside the ghussal khana in the morning means..?’ he leaves the unfinished question hanging in the air for Mak to digest.
‘…a more violent reaction by Monty, which means more Krone attacks,’ Mak is still not able to fully grasp the implications.
‘Which means less political rivals for you and me,’ Bruno feeds him another morsel of wisdom.
‘…which means more power for us!’ Mak finally gets it; he looks at Bruno with new found respect and adulation.
The two shake hands.
Two days later
The tiled floor of the ghusal khana glistens in the bright light, everything is shiny clean. There is still a lingering smell of Mortein spray in the air from two days ago.
At precisely quarter to midnight Monty brushes his teeth, changes into his night suit and leaves. There is no hustle bustle of a few days ago, only a solitary bug crawls out from under the sink after a few minutes. As he makes his way along the wall, he meets an ant.
‘Hello there brother, where you headed?’ asks the bug.
‘Why the local elections of course, to elect our new leader’, replies the youngster enthusiastically. This time, the elections are being held under the flush due to heightened security as well as low voter turnout after the massacre.
‘Aren’t you going to vote?’ asks the ant nervously, ‘I hear the new KKK-Revolutionary group led by Bruno and Mak is going to sweep the elections this time, they really seem genuine and honest people who care for the betterment of GK.’
The old bug chuckles to himself and says something about same garbage new wrapping under his breath.
‘What?’, the ant is agitated at the bugs lackadaisical attitude, ‘We need fresh and new revolutionaries right now to shake up the system and bring prosperity to our great state’ he quotes verbatim from the political rallies he has attended recently.
‘So tell me young one,’ the bug pats the youngster on the back, ‘what do you think revolution means?’
Gradually their voices fade as the two walk off into the distance.